By Shannon Ferguson
When you enter Rockton, a.k.a. “The Beautiful Village,” you can scarcely avoid its motto. From the water tower that stands high above Rockton Road to the charming signs that occupy the main passages into the village, “History, Heritage and Pride” is the prevalent theme. Why, then, have so many grassroots efforts to enact a protective ordinance to prevent the demolition of viable and architecturally-stable historical homes and buildings been thwarted?
Time and time again, such an ordinance has been on the agenda, studied, discussed and at least once was, verifiably, moments away from being put in place via a moratorium. (1) Time and time again, it has been put on a shelf, forgotten or rejected outright.
Rockton’s history is deep, rich and colorful, and much of that history lies in the numerous historical buildings and homes densely scattered throughout the village: From the Talcott Free Library, a beautiful and imposing limestone structure, to the Stephen Mack Settlement, a small, demure and pristinely preserved example of another era; from the once-grand and now diminished Hollister Homestead proudly overlooking the river to the unassuming little Greek Revival that once housed the future wife of George Henry Hollister himself; from the prestigious and triumphant Talcott Homestead on West Chapel Street to the adorable and legendarily mouth-watering Dairy Haus.
These are the places that make Rockton … well … Rockton. They are — and should — remain the aesthetic image and representative character of the village.
Many, though, have been lost. Some historical homes and buildings, rightfully for the sake of safety, and others, unfortunately in the name of progress, no longer occupy Rockton’s landscape. Among them are a stone home on East Chapel Street, once a girls’ seminary with a notable, hand-crafted circular staircase, built on land donated by Stephen Mack; a Greek Revival on North Blackhawk, built in 1848, demolished to make way for a modern apartment building; and, nostalgic to many of Rockton’s longest-lived residents, the Mansion House Hotel, a three-story traditional small-town inn, built in 1848 from locally-procured bricks and torn down in 1961. (2) Others, still, stand at the precipice while time marches by and inaction watches the parade.
Currently on the forefront and in imminent danger of being demolished is the noble and ostentatious (albeit neglected) Hollister Homestead that overlooks the river on Blackhawk Boulevard. A demolition permit has already been issued for this impressive, Victorian piece of Rockton’s history. The owner has, generously, agreed to delay the destruction until approximately January 2015 to allow concerned citizen(s) and/or group(s) the opportunity to arrange for the house to be moved to a new location to preserve it. A small alliance of current and former residents, informally known as The Rockton Historical Preservation Committee and with a long-term goal of getting a protective ordinance put in place, has taken on this task as a short-term objective and set up a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheHistoricalHomesOfRockton) and a fund-raiser (https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/eYTO5?psid=4f0e72fd4d7a4b55a9a4fb489083fbc9). As it has always been with The Beautiful Village, though, it is Rockton’s residents who will determine the course of preserving, protecting and maintaining the history of their community.
Rockton’s heritage has long been built upon the industrious nature of its citizens. Stephen Mack harnessed the stalwart Rock River to build his trading business. The Pottawatomie and Winnebago natives used the sturdy stones along its banks for decoration and weaponry, and the hearty Midwest soil propagated the crops that sustained them. Mrs. Mary (Hooker) Streckewald put her quill to paper in Rockton’s early days to describe the arrival of William and Thomas Talcott:
‘Twas years ago, when the wild glowing west wore bright-hued blossoms on her emerald vest,
when dusky Indians roamed the forest glades or built their wigwams ‘neath its leafy shades.
There came one evening, just at set of sun, two travelers, a father and a son.
Here, were the level prairie’s fertile brim kissed by the waters of your rippling streams.
Fringed its lair banks with tall and stately trees, hilt waved their branches to the gentle breeze.
While thickets of the plum and bending willows, surged here and there, their softly swelling billows.
Green plumes and banners mixed with gleams of silver, revealed the winding pathway of the river.
Here, said the father, let us settle down, send for the rest and found Talcott town.
They made their claim and built a cabin small, with logs and clay to form its solid walls,
with a crude window and a cruder door and roof of bark over its hard clay floor. (3)
This, and so much more, epitomizes the legacy of Rockton’s residents. It is an inheritance worthy of preservation, both figuratively and visually.
Rockton’s pride has always been synonymous with and dependent upon its history and heritage. The Beautiful Village will always be a village; a small town. It will never be a metropolis. It has neither the space nor the desire to be. A Saturday walk in summer will find families swimming at the public pool or playing in the park, people mowing their lawns, tending their gardens or having a barbecue. The same walk in winter will see snowmen adorning the humble yards, people shoveling their driveways, sidewalks and a bustling little Main Street with decorated storefronts. Rockton’s pride is encompassed in these simple things.
Rockton residents, get involved to support the efforts to protect the historical structures and integrity of Rockton. Please don’t let your village become an esoteric boilerplate and citified parcel where complacency has allowed its identity to vanish. “History, Heritage and Pride” is not just a motto, it is a commitment. Protect your village’s history, embrace its heritage and take pride in preserving it for generations to come.
Shannon Ferguson currently lives in Loves Park, Ill., but has been a resident of the stateline all her life. She grew up in Rockton.
(1) Village Board meeting minutes, Jan. 22, 2013
(3) The history of Rockton, Winnebago County, Illinois, 1820 to 1898 by Edson Irving Carr
From the Sept. 11-17, 2013, issue